Editor's note: Hello lovely readers! On this gorgeous spring day, we have the second story in our series on the flora & fauna of Boise, written by Amanda Patchin. The first story of this series looked at the fauna, specifically the birds of Boise. Today, we're exploring Boise's flora. Enjoy! -Marissa
Our little city of trees is a delightful bit of green in the surrounding high desert climate. Thanks to the irrigation developments of Arthur De Wint Foote, including the construction of the various dams and canal systems in the area, Boise usually has plenty of water throughout our long dry summers.
Much of this water goes onto our lawns, which are generally an ecological negative. However, a not insignificant amount goes to nourish the thousands of trees that line our neighborhoods, the farm crops that sprawl out beyond the subdivisions, and innumerable back yard gardens.
The cooling effect of a tree canopy and the nourishing food from farms and gardens are an excellent use of the water hoarded behind the dams, but as our current drought continues and the future remains uncertain, it might be worth considering how and why we use our water the way we do.
It's a commonplace of water conservation that growing native plants is superior to planting hybrids or other non-native species. Native plants are adapted to the ecology of the region and tend to do well in its usual circumstances. Native plants are not always as valued, however, as they tend to be less vibrant, less uniform, and less striking than their hybrid competitors.
When planning out landscaping, homeowners tend to follow broad social conventions of uniformity and vibrancy, even when they aren’t spelled out in overly prescriptive CC&Rs. Modern conventions call for level, bright green lawns, flowering trees that are nevertheless fruitless, and regimented bushes of even heights and colors.
Anything that browns in the summer, drops sticky produce, or spreads itself, is suspect – if not outright forbidden – in the urban and suburban environment. But there are many plants native to our region that could be used in landscaping: plants that combine a variety of desirable characteristics including beauty, moderate water consumption, and edibility.
If we, as a community, are open to reconsidering the aesthetic of uniformity that dominates the American neighborhood, we might just end up conserving water, improving our palates, and unleashing a richer vision of beauty in our city.
The common camas (Camassia quamash) grows throughout the northwest and up into Canada. A member of the lily family, it is a small flowering bulb that was once a staple crop for native tribes. The Lewis and Clark expedition was introduced to camas by their Native guides and, as a calorically rich food staple, it helped the group survive as they explored through Idaho.
Camas grows easily in marshy areas that dry out as the year continues. This makes them effective at exploiting the natural water cycle of the high desert as they absorb the pooling water from spring rains, then flower and multiply during the ensuing dry season. Camas spreads easily both through the multiplication of bulbs and through scattering seeds on dry winds.
It would be a mistake, though, to believe that the flourishing camas prairies that nourished both Indigenous tribes and early settlers and explorers were somehow a straightforwardly “natural” or “wild” phenomenon. The huge fields of camas with their brilliant purple flowers, long green leaves, and starchy white bulbs, were the agricultural work of native kin groups who used controlled burns, careful re-planting, and regulated harvesting to ensure a large crop each year.
Camas bulbs can be eaten roasted or baked. They do require a lengthy cook time to break down the complex starches into digestible sugars. William Clark famously complained of painful indigestion after eating a large quantity of undercooked camas and, you too would be uncomfortable and unpleasant to be around if you ate so much of the flatulence-inducing food! The members of the expedition quickly learned to cook the camas properly and to enjoy the variety of ways it could be prepared. Roasted, it is supposed to taste something like a sweet potato. Roasted, dried, pounded to meal, it makes a sweet flour that can be cooked into a pancake-like flatbread, or a biscuit.
Undercooking isn’t the only risk with camas. There is a whole group of flowers with similar bulbous roots called “Deathcamas” because of their resemblance to camas, their love of the same ecological niche, and their toxicity. Deathcamas does have distinct white flowers, but, outside of blooming, they are very difficult to distinguish from the edible plant and so amateur foragers must be very careful to familiarize themselves with the plants in bloom before harvesting in late summer.
Camas flowers would make a lovely addition to a planted bed under the house eaves. If you are truly adventurous you could replace an entire lawn with camas, enjoying the purple blooms in spring and the green stems and leaves the rest of the year. Whether you made the effort to eat them or not, they would be frugal with water in the summer and not require mowing!
Camas seeds can be purchased locally from Snake River Seeds and from a variety of online sources, and while establishing the plants can take a while, they are a worthwhile investment in the long-term ecology of our city.
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Lomatium is a genus that comprises about seventy five separate species, all of which are related to the carrot family. Nineleaf Biscuitroot is the one native to our region and it is both an early spring wildflower (as we discussed earlier this month) and an edible plant. In fact, its name is highly instructive: its leaves form on each stem in three groups of three and the root is a starchy staple food that can be ground into a fine flour and cooked into literal biscuits or used as a thickener in stews.
The lovely yellow flowers are beautiful in early spring and the delicate grass-like stalks are unintrusive. Biscuitroot would make a simple addition to an edible lawn both because the plant blends easily with grass and because the root easily survives even when the upper stalk is totally dried out and gone. If you cultivate it for food, in other words, it will store itself easily through the heat of summer and be patiently waiting to be dug up in the fall. Biscuit root is extremely drought tolerant and actually enjoys sandy soils that other plants shun.
You can find seed sources for this one as well, and scattering them along the edge of a gravel driveway and ignoring them could easily result in an edible crop next year.
Sagebrush is almost too obvious a choice for an article about native flora. Not only does the desert around Boise boast hundreds of thousands of the scrubby pale-blue bushes, but the wind-pollination of the plants is an annual source of stuffy noses, abrupt sneezes, and watering eyes. And yet, it is a surprisingly interesting and lovely plant.
Sagebrush takes a while to establish itself and the seedlings can easily be browsed to death by grazing antelope, burned up in grass fires, or otherwise disturbed by human activity. Once established, though, the plant is tough and durable, happily living through droughts, resisting grazing animals, and frustrating efforts to create farmland.
It uses both deep taproots (often as much as 12 feet long!) and surface roots to take advantage of the water table as well as light rain, and sagebrush has remarkable defensive systems to ward off grazing animals. Sagebrush is full of camphor and other volatile organic compounds that lend it its pungent odor. When a cow, deer, or antelope takes a bite out of a leaf-covered branch, the brush pumps these compounds into the air. Other nearby sagebrush can “smell” these compounds and are therefore alerted to their danger. They then pump extra bitter oils into their leaves in order to discourage further browsing, protecting themselves.
In addition to tasting bad, these oils are toxic to the digestive bacteria of most mammals, including humans. Antelope are the only herbivores that can eat more than a mouthful or two of sagebrush without getting sick. And, while sagebrush has been used medicinally, the strength of its oils means that dosing with the plant can be dangerous as well as unpleasant. Indigestion will be most obvious, but liver damage can also result. Smudging with some dry branches is the only really safe use, if you can do so without setting the curtains on fire.
Once established, a few sagebrush along a sidewalk planter bed, or bordering the driveway can offer a durable and native bit of landscaping. Their scent is pungently refreshing and the soft blue-green of their leaves offers a subtle beauty.
It is a bit of a stretch to consider Pinyon Pine a native species, but I’m going to do so anyway. The natural range of the the single-leaf pinyon stretches from Nevada’s Great Basin into the very southern reaches of Idaho (you can find them in City of Rocks National Reserve). It has never grown in the Treasure Valley, but is adapted to our climate and could be cultivated here. The reason I want to include them is because of the unique lesson they offer to our modern world.
Nearly everyone has enjoyed pine nuts, either in pesto sauce or toasted as an accent to wild rice or couscous. However, very few Americans have ever cultivated or harvested pine nuts. The majority of pine nuts eaten in the US are grown in Asia and shipped over. Pricy in comparison to other nuts and seeds, pine nuts are generally used as an accent to other dishes, however, the true Pinyon Pine Seed was a staple crop for various native tribes in the American Southwest.
While crops vary quite dramatically from year to year, the single-leaf pinyon is a reliable source of high-calorie, high-nutrient food. A single acre of pinyon trees can yield 250 pounds of seeds and they are very shelf-stable, allowing tribes to store a bountiful year against the possibility of a low year.
Pinyon’s prefer high-altitude, but can be cultivated at lower levels with a light supply of water in well-drained soil. It takes a pinyon at least 25 years to reach maturity, but, as they are self-pollinating, a 25 year commitment could result in enough pine nuts to satisfy the pesto-lover in your family. That 25 year commitment is the kicker though. Most American families move after as little as five years in a home and it is hard to pass on devotion to a tree from buyer to buyer. Still, there is an old proverb about planting trees you will never enjoy the shade of and I think we would all benefit from planting trees we may not enjoy the food of.
It’s only twelve bucks to order a seedling, and some observant and thoughtful member of the next generation will surely bless your unknown name when they discover that the pine tree at the center of the back yard is actually a source of delicious food!
The last native species for today is one we can’t actually plant in our yards. Aase’s onion does produce lovely wildflowers but it is also edible, and would be an excellent choice for a native garden. Unfortunately, it is “imperilled” on Idaho’s conservation list and the only place in the world to find it is in a tiny range here in southern Idaho: mostly the Boise Foothills.
This tiny wild onion is named after Hannah Caroline Aase, a botanist who earned her PhD in 1915 from the University of Chicago and went on to study wild onions, conifers, and wheat. The onion named for her has small bulbs, less than an inch in diameter, and tiny little purple-pink flowers.
Because of its endangered status, the tiny plants should not be touched for any reason. Instead of attempting to integrate them into native landscaping, they should be enjoyed as a pleasant surprise if you spot one while out on a spring hike in the foothills.
It would be great if the population bounced back enough to permit gourmet sampling someday, but until then let’s snack on our camas and biscuit root, use the sagebrush to smudge our houses and rid them of the smell of stinky socks, and look fondly on our pinyon seedlings as we dream of a future of plentiful and free pine nuts!
Thanks for reading!
With love from Boise,
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